Sacred Space Learning

Often we are required to take time out in our lives to move into sacred space. For many, these moments are forced upon us in the form of illness, change of jobs, having to take care of a child or aging parent, managing a trauma. Sometimes, we have to muster up the courage to demand sacred space for ourselves and we put in a request for a sabbatical, ask for a leave of absence, walk out from a toxic situation, schedule a vacation. Regardless of the circumstances, finding sacred space is necessary for personal and social transformation. It is also necessary for learning.

Sacred SpaceThe last time I experienced sacred space was when I moved to the country and I was unemployed. During that two-year period of time, I discovered myself and the world around me through nature and painting. Currently, I am in sacred space again. This time, I find solace in fiction writing, meditation and painting. Applying colors on a canvas seems to be an integral part of my sacred space experience. In doing so, I access the right side of my brain where imagery and our ability to see new things live.

What can we learn from sacred space? During these moments of deep introspection, perception of time is warped. Everything seems to go slow and daily life routines appear dreamlike and upside down. In this warped time and dream-like experience there is deep inner work happening. The Ego is acting out, belligerent. The heightened duality of the self, as well as our detachment from routine leads to a sense of discomfort and novelty–both essential in learning and initiating transformation.

Eventually, we come back onto the world stage, taking with us whatever metamorphosis occurred. We have learned that we can manifest our inner selves outwardly and this manifestation may take the form of art, altered states of being, modified behavior, a new home, a new work environment, a change of heart. However it happens, we emerge new and rejuvenated. We have altered our vibrational energy and now we are ready to pour ourselves into the outside world to impact the totality of our collective experience.

Here is a simple formula to describe this phenomenon

Space + Time = (Spirit) Consciousness = Creation


Space + Time + Creation = (Spirit) Consciousness

The following are definitions to clarify terms:

Spirit refers to a sense of deeper purpose, that which exists beyond our own understanding, that which pertains to a non-material world, all that is subtle, nuanced and abstract.

Consciousness is a state of awareness.

In modern day society, we fail to legitimize sacred space as being essential to our personal and collective wellbeing, especially in the field of education when everything is about data, science, logic and efficacy. Therefore, in my work I explore creating, building and implementing sacred spaces, for individuals and groups to learn.

Some of this work entails asking these questions:

  • What makes a space sacred?
  • How much time can we realistically set aside for sacred space learning?
  • What materials, resources or facilities are required to provide sacred space learning opportunities within the work place?
  • How can we manage our schedules so that teams are productive and also allows for flexibility?
  • How can we leverage what we learn from sacred space?
  • How can we channel sacred space energy in ways that support our vision and mission?

When was the last time you found yourself in sacred space? What came out of it? How did you apply the new insight of self and the world around you into your teaching and leading?

Ode to Dewey: Powers, Prophecy and Dignity of Teaching

I believe that this educational process has two sides – one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.

Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

The last few days have been dreadful— a real deep freeze. Not only has the weather been unbearably cold, but our boiler collapsed on New Year’s Eve leaving my family without heat and carbon dioxide scares for three days. On the third morning, I lay paralyzed with madness. I was cocooned in an old blue sleeping bag, several layers of fleece and wool covered feet. In that moment I thought, I’m losing my mind. Trust in my existence waned. I sank deep into my sofa and considered what happens to our body, mind, spirit when outer conditions become increasingly challenging?

My eyes land on the portable heater we borrowed. The steady hum muffles my brain. It didn’t help that I had seen the Mountain Between Us and The Zookeeper’s Wife over the holiday. Everything felt like it could spiral out of control in a minute. What happens when outer conditions become increasingly challenging, arduous and pained? What happens to us when the world fails us, when society fails us— as it happened for the millions of Jews, Poles, Slavs during World War II, the African slaves for over three hundred years, for the Puerto Ricans after the hurricane?

It’s only been three days and I’m feeling bi-polar. I am tight lipped, sullen and defensive. Then suddenly, I’m running outside with a surge of energy and gratitude for life. I log onto the internet. Diane Ravitch posted Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed on her website. I want to read it, to feed my intellect, but I can’t. I’m too cold and lethargic. I decide it makes better sense to drive my daughter to school. I can do this, I think.

I am driving her to school and a yellow bus suddenly stops holding us hostage in the middle of a narrow block. Usually I’d feel agitated, but I’m warm so I relax and observe the scene. Shortly, a mother appears out of the house ushering two children. She zips a coat, tinkers with a hat, hugs, kisses and onto the school bus, one by one they go. There are four cars behind me. The longer we wait, the more I become breathless, the more I surrender to this image— the love and devotion for our children and their education has the power to stop a stream of traffic. It is in an instant a lesson on how our inner world can dictate social consciousness.

I am zooming down the West Side highway. My high school age daughter snoozes in the back seat and I am filled with gratitude for her life, my freedom, her school. The dead boiler and the cold feels temporary and insignificant suddenly. I think about the day to day life of a teacher and school leader who choose a life of service. They build learning communities for children and families who may be experiencing hardship and challenges caused by cracks and gaps in society. We hear stories of fires, natural disasters, trauma. We imagine or know intimately the life of a refugee where suffering and displacement are prolonged. Homelessness, family illness, separations, poverty. So many of us come to school as part-time survivors. How should we approach teaching and learning when our outer conditions appear to be increasingly challenging? How might we design learning communities that are conscientious, that are responsive to the frailty of our society, structures and political arrangements that often fail us miserably? How can we institutionalize our universal love and devotion for the inner and outer lives of all of our children?

When I get back home, I am ready for Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed.

I highlight and bold so many beautiful lines. I interrogate his thinking. Then, I close my lap top and think, what is the best way to share my day’s important discoveries.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

       Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897


Where Do Important Lessons Begin and End?

“The pressures of inequality and of wanting to keep up are not confined to a small minority who are poor.”

~Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2010

“While preparing for a presentation, I start a conversation with the custodial worker assigned to our room. He tells me that my type of work is important, but no matter how much we try to perfect the school and the teacher, nothing will change until we realize that a perfect school in the middle of an impoverished ghetto can never amount to anything. I look up from my neat binder and pile of handouts. The African American man leans over with a squint in his left eye and asks, “What message are we giving a child when we invest in the school but neglect his parents and his community?” I think about this for a long time and I am transformed.” 

~Ríos, Teacher Agency for Equity, 2017

Two important events have happened that carry important lessons.

Lesson #1

My fish got sick. His name is Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson is a Betta. Betta’s are very lively and friendly. Since I bought him, I’ve had him in a very small tank that seemed to suit his needs. But with the change of season he started withering. His usual energetic self was now laying at the bottom of the tank. He was lethargic and often buried his head under rocks. Since the weather changed, I decided to add a small heater but it didn’t make a difference. He ate less and less and within days, I began to worry Mr. Anderson wouldn’t make it.

When my son came home for the weekend, he pointed out that Mr. Anderson was depressed. Depressed, I asked? Depressed, he repeated. Maybe you should change his environment, he said while he read up on Bettas on his phone. And you need to talk to him too, Mom. Bettas live alone but they need company.

I bought Mr. Anderson a larger, more vibrant home. I added a filter and some colorful rocks. We all made a special effort to talk to him a lot. Mr. Anderson has not been happier! He swims and darts around all day. His eating habits have improved and he dances for me when I am near enough to see.

While watching Mr. Anderson jiggle his beautiful red polka-dotted body, a feeling of profound appreciation and warmth swept over me. Call me sappy but I felt like he was channeling love, gratitude and the spirit of God to me.

I learned that even a small, loner fish like Mr. Anderson can have needs. I learned that mood is important and moods are tied to our environment. We all need a good space and change. I am reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago called, Mindfulness for Poor People—on the power of space and how often We are forced to stay small to accommodate.

Mr. Anderson gave me permission to acknowledge the causes of my own suffering. I too had been feeling sick and lethargic. I was trying to fix it but doing the wrong things. By being mindful of Mr. Anderson and my environment, I knew what I needed to recharge my spirit.

I have grown out of this space and I am ready for change.

Lesson #2

Last week my daughter texted me to say she was in a shelter. A shelter? I texted back. Yea, she replied, there’s been a shooting. Oh, so that’s what they call lockdown at Stuyvesant, I thought. I marveled once again at the power of language.

I instinctively knew my daughter was safe but I wondered about her inner world—was she scared, disillusioned, saddened by the incident? I ran to my computer to get the news. The first update I got was from Twitter, my new ‘go-to.’ Within minutes more tweets were posted with information and photos. It was already being labeled a terror attack.

I slipped into the world of cyber space. Simultaneously, I sent numerous texts to my daughter and husband coordinating their escape from lower Manhattan. Forty minutes passed before I looked up from the screen and my eyes landed on the black bat I had put up for Halloween. Below it was a large bowl of Costco candy. That’s when it hit me. Another holiday tradition usurped by violence, stress, anxiety.

It wasn’t until eight o’clock that I left the house to get my daughter and husband at the train. They crawled into the car with dark circles under their eyes. They were flushed over with that withered, sour smell of the subway.

The next day we decided to keep our daughter home from school. I told her it was important to take time to pause and reflect. I recommended she rest and say a prayer for the dead. She looked at me sideways.

Not surprisingly, her fortress of a school opened ‘business as usual.’ Teachers, administrators and school leaders courageously opened their doors, taught a full day and led. A part of me envied how easy it was for them to just carry on. But then I realized— isn’t that what we keep doing— over and over again? We just keep carrying on?

I learned that violence, stress and anxiety are real, heavy shared universal human experiences. How fast we can absorb, process and digest the daily dose of violence, stress and anxiety is still considered an individual’s mental health problem. We talk about the negative effects of cortisol and trauma on kids and learning. Teachers and school leaders absorb the same chemicals and it results in chronic low trust, depression, poor health and random, peculiar, anti-social behaviors we often see in our schools and communities.

I learned there are no borders, labels, nor identities that can individually claim the type of violence, stress, anxiety we are experiencing as a society. We are one, big, ravaging sponge-like organism, with little fires sprouting out from all over our limbs. Whether you are home alone or in company, whether you reside at the middle or on the top, or even if you’re dead in the roots your soul screeching and squirming—we are all One.


How do you know if you’re making a difference that matters?

This is the year that everything seems to matter— and yet no one knows if what they do day-to-day matters very much at all. It’s certainly the paradox of our time and especially for teachers. I think it’s important to reflect on our everyday practice and put into question our views about the purpose of education and how we engage young people.

Jacob Needleman writes about an all too typical experience:

“There they were, about fifteen boys and girls, there I was—talking, talking, talking. I couldn’t stop talking. Hands started waving in the air and I finally called on one of the students. But no sooner did she start to bring her question out that I steamrolled over it with an answer that left her absolutely no room for further questioning. I went on talking, amusingly, animatedly bringing in Plato’s cave here, the Upanishads there… Time flew by. The bell rang and suddenly the class was over. That was it, that was all. As the students cheerfully filed past me and I smiled to each of them, exchanging a few informal remarks, I began to realize in my gut what had happened. To be precise: nothing.”

This fiasco, as Needleman called it, propelled him to engage in deep reflection and eventually to take on a high school class in San Francisco after years of teaching at the college level. Later he writes, “My task is to engage that part of them that needs to achieve while calling gently to the part that dreams of Truth.”

Needleman designs his philosophy class around enduring questions that he categorizes as “real, gut-level questions of life that often students are not free to address in educational institutions.” Questions such as:

Why are we here?

Why are we given more advanced brains than other animals?

Is taking another human life ever justified?

What is a human being?

What can we hope for?

Who am I?

What is love?

While I read Needleman’s words in a thin book I found on a cluttered shelf at Strand bookstore (Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, edited by Linda Lantieri) I inhale and exhale deeply. I am inspired and reassured. It is so easy to question.

This is a message to all my fellow writers, philosophers and teachers out there who feel deeply about the quality and character of life. What matters is your willingness to inquire within and to find the magic that transforms the outer world through honest, everyday practice. It is keeping humanity at the center of all things.

Sometimes we are stuck in a place where we have to ask: How do I break through this robotic stance? How do I metamorphose this lifeless, sterile, empty space, this institutionalized public space into a personalized, soul-searching, heartbreaking, life-altering space where the spark of curiosity dances through us continuously?

It is easy to get bullied or brow beaten especially considering the real challenges of teaching and learning. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that examining, exploring, honoring, nurturing the quality of our character, our souls, the core of our human existence is somehow someone else’s job or not so important.

Mathematics, science, ELA and technology are important, but not so much if we do not have the capacity to use knowledge in an ethical and mindful way so that we better our world, ensure we are working for peace. Without an investment in the soul work of teaching every day, in nurturing a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning, and value for all life– we may be accidentally contributing to the self-destructive, violent, and hateful behavior we see tormenting our nation.

The Unfinished Game of Chess

We all have a purpose but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to change our position in life. From this way to that, from that way to this—we are stretched and pulled, relocated, transposed, swapped, transfigured in order to fit into the larger scheme, as needed. We are not contortionists but rather, spiritual beings poured into the form of three-dimensional shapes that can morph into an infinite number of roles in order to learn love and acceptance.

If we are not careful or gentle with others, and ourselves we may look upon our call to change and feel discontented. We ask ourselves why our own handiwork just doesn’t seem to fit and we are left embittered by this. Sometimes, we try to squeeze back into something, curl up or swing upside down until we realize that we may not be in total control. If we pause for a moment and peer outside our antics, we find that there is something greater than this, a creative intelligence perhaps, or a (w)holiness. Is it all by design, we ask? Not entirely, but know you are not alone.

What does it mean to go from “I” to “We?” What does it mean to surrender and at the same time exhibit agency? Is it possible to play chess and leave it, unfinished, with no winner or loser, but rather experience the bliss of moving pieces from one side of the board to the other, each time getting a deeper and deeper understanding of just how unique we all are and infinite possibilities?

Let go and let in.

The older I get, the more I float. Detached and free.

Wisdom is bowing down with humility, getting out of the way and watching our spirits rise, and morph into a variety of multicolored sizes and shapes.


Finding Balance & Space

There are four different spaces that make up the canvas of our lives:

  • personal, when we are alone;
  • interpersonal when we are in relationship with another;
  • community when we are part of a group with a shared purpose;
  • spiritual which can exist within each of the other three spaces or all of them combined.

On the coldest day of the year, or so it felt to me, I ventured into the warm and beautiful Kadampa Meditation Center in New York City, a spiritual space and refuge for those of us who wish to explore Buddhism and meditation. As part of my ongoing commitment to the practice of conscientious engagement, my purpose is always twofold: to experience and to study the phenomena of that experience. This is in a nutshell the nature and nurture of my own consciousness, as well as the pathway I have chosen to better understand how to develop consciousness in the world.

Unlike my other posts, this one will be brief. I wanted to take a moment to quickly share what I learned on my visit, which included approximately forty minutes of guided meditation in a room with about fifteen participants.

The first thing that was revealed to me was just how important it is that we engage in all four spaces that make up our human experience if we are to experience wholeness and well-being—in other words, balance.

Second, this experience revealed the enormous impact of how we design our spaces, via architecture or process structures such as when we design a school building or even a learning experience divided into modules, protocols and time.

Each detail of a space (the external and the internal elements) communicates value of purpose. For example, if we work in a place where the only common area is the size of a cubicle, what does that say about how our company culture values interpersonal relationships? Similarly, if we omit access to one of the four spaces entirely (as we often do in education) then how are we to experience holism and well-being? An example of this is designing a school entirely centered on personalized learning at the expense of community building. Or, creating schools in which no space is allotted for teachers and students to explore philosophy, ethics, the nature of our existence or the spiritual dimensions of consciousness and its impact on cognition.

There was something very beautiful and uplifting about sitting in meditation with other human beings as compared to sitting alone in my living room. Not to mention the open, simplicity of the architecture of the space, the room was large and spacious, with crystal clear windows and natural light and we were not cramped on top of each other. The voice of the instructor was soothing sending energetic frequencies into the space, and I knew we also transmitted energy to one another in our meditation. The space transcended the space itself.

I need to do this, I thought. And more often. I also left wanting to share these insights with my education colleagues who spend so much time cramming teachers into tight spaces teaching from curriculum and instruction designs that lack careful attention to the mind-body-spirit balance and the three spaces we need to communicate a value for the whole person. All of this refers to education spaces that meet the needs of the whole child. No wonder we we struggle with innovating the public education!

As such, I decided this experience deserves greater exploration. Some of the questions I will be thinking about over the next week are:

  • Do all four spaces require an equal amount of time for well-being? Is this the same for each person, or does it vary?
  • What is the difference between experiencing spirit alone as compared to being in a group?
  • Are we optimizing our energy/learning/well-being when we engage in experiences that integrate all four spaces or domains?
  • How has modern day living and technology coopted our access to space and what has been the impact on our consciousness?


We Need Evolutionary Teachers: A Growing Consciousness

The impact of the presidential campaign and transition of power have resulted in large-scale social movements mobilizing women, teachers and school leaders to consider our work for equity. Over the last two decades, we have narrowed our focus on closing ‘achievement gaps’ and collecting data at the expense of examining the very foundation of how we do teaching and schooling in America. Now is the time for us to be responsive to the cry out for change. Now is a good time to look at the character of our schools and our role as teachers and change agents. How can we ensure our schools are sanctuaries for peace, equity and democracy?

One of the important tasks ahead of us is building systems, structures and practices that truly reflect the values of equity and democracy. As an in-service teacher educator and instructional designer, I wonder how we can best support teachers and school leaders to stand firm in their commitment to truth, shared responsibility and care for the well-being of all human beings? No one can argue that we are facing the greatest challenges of our time such a global warming, rising income inequality, war and terrorism and the privatization of our public spaces.

I am also deeply concerned with how we can help our teachers shift their attention away from spectacle and rhetoric that debilitates us through divisiveness and pay greater attention to our collective wisdom about what it means to work for equity. In my forthcoming book, Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement (Routledge Press, 2017), I argue that we need to stop action for actions sake and take the time to examine and develop a new agency for equity in light of our failure to realize these goals. In addition to critically analyzing our context, we need to consider our inner thoughts, our use of language, the complexity of our professional relationships and how we often channel energy in ways that leave us exhausted without any real change.

Our school system and communities often divided by race, class and ideologies perpetuate bias and politically driven decision-making. These divisions are a manifestation of something deeper, a consciousness that is based on rivalry, fear and compartmentalization. Schools and whole communities that are divided by race and class in areas where there is sufficient diversity should not be acceptable in the 21st century. The way we distribute resources should not be acceptable either. More importantly, the election of a President that based his campaign on divisive rhetoric targeting very specific groups must be seen as a red flag in the education community that we are fundamentally lacking in holistic, critical thinking.

There are very important matters we must address if we are to consider schools the foundation of a healthy democracy and a place where all children flourish. Without prioritizing the time and space to dialogue about these matters in groups that cut across race, class and ideology—we can not ensure that we are in fact working together to build a culture of tolerance, inclusivity and critical mindfulness.

In my experience as an educator over the last fifteen years, I have learned that grappling with tough questions that pertain to education are not easy for teachers and school leaders. I am referring to questions that reveal our personal values, feelings about race and racism, the notion of equity and poverty. These types of questions surface fears, our shame and attachment to identity. Many teachers and school leaders wonder if they are positioned in society to do anything about these big issues when their roles are clearly defined by compliance and market driven expectations. However, teachers and school leaders know that they are at the epicenter of all social and cultural movements. They know these big questions are at the heart of the work we do every day. So, how are we to manage this angry sea of conflicting ideologies and stay focused on what matters for equity?

First, we must turn our attention to the hard work in front of us. In doing so, we will realize that we are hungry to step up to the challenge. As demonstrated at the Women’s March, we are ready to give voice to our concerns, our fears, our shameful thoughts, our suffering and confusion about these perennial issues that continue to plague our society such as race and poverty and—what do we really mean when we say student achievement in a society with widening inequality and a break down in access to opportunities? We also know that part of this work is confronting our own economic insecurities and confusion about our role as teachers. What do we owe the communities in which we teach, that are often not our own? In this process of mindful inquiry, we all will need a guarantee that engaging in these important conversations can lead not only to healing, but to a shared vision and concrete action steps to move us forward.

In working on my book, my goal was to offer educators a framework that can help teachers and school leaders examine and develop authenticity and agency for equity. In all my years of service to the field, I know teachers and school leaders want to make a difference that matters and often that means looking beyond the four walls of our classrooms. The Conscientious Engagement framework that is based on six principles (Spirit Consciousness, Authentic Presence, Entanglement, Freedom, Meliorism and Emergence) helps teachers and school leaders heighten their awareness of the nature of our thoughts and how we use language, the complexity of our professional relationships and the need for belonging and, lastly— how we channel our energy in ways that either impede or strengthen our work for equity. Engaging in critical mindful inquiry with ourselves and with others will build awareness that we are all connected—that each and every one of us belongs to a larger human spirit consciousness that gives us rise and access to our inner wisdom and strength to work for the common good. Knowing that we belong to something greater than ourselves can unify us in ways we’ve not known before.

What does it mean to be an evolutionary teacher at this critical time in our history? For me, an evolutionary teacher makes a commitment to stay conscientiously engaged in the school and in the community. This requires critical mindfulness and deliberation over the real foundational issues in education. An evolutionary teacher understands that we are interconnected and we all have creative intelligence. An evolutionary teacher practices authentic presence. An evolutionary teacher rises above all that is divisive and values all life equally. Seeking out and living truth, being authentic, and honoring all life equally as demonstrated in every day practice is the next step in our human evolution and teachers are central to this process.

Our time is now. We are in the position to make a difference that matters, a difference that extends beyond the four walls of a classroom. Ultimately, we know that this is our work, this is our true nature as teachers— to model, to grow, to teach, to have courage, to advocate, to ensure that schools remain sanctuaries for peace and equity.